TONY ABBOTT is set to up the ante on asylum seeker policy by promising to make the thousands of people soon to be released into the community work for their limited welfare payments.
If not, they could lose the payments, have them suspended, or possibly be put back in detention.
Abbott accused of stoking asylum fears
Prime Minister Julia Gillard has accused Tony Abbott of using inflammatory language to stoke fears about asylum seekers.
Based on the current rate at which people are arriving by boat, the policy has the potential to generate a low-paid labour force of about 20,000 people.
A Coalition government will also cut Australia's humanitarian intake by about 6000 places a year, saving about $1.3 billion over the forward estimates.
The Opposition Leader is developing plans for a mutual obligation scheme, similar to work-for-the-dole, after attacking Labor's latest policy change which was prompted by an overwhelming number of arrivals. Unable to send to Nauru or Manus Island the thousands who continue to arrive by boat, the government will release them into the community but under the same no-advantage conditions as if they were on one of the Pacific islands. These conditions are designed to discourage people from getting on boats by making them wait as long for permanent residency as if they had stayed in the camp from which they disembarked. The Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, said this could be up to five years.
In the interim, they will be given bridging visas which forbid them to work and forbid family reunions, but to help them get by, they will receive about $435 a fortnight in welfare payments.
Mr Abbott said on Thursday that consigning people to welfare for five years was a poor way to prepare them to become citizens.
He is set to announce that if elected, a Coalition government would subject working-age holders of bridging visas to mutual obligation requirements similar to the work-for-the-dole program.
''The difficulty with [the government's] announcement - that people coming to Australia illegally by boat will be put on temporary bridging visas with access to welfare before more or less automatically getting permanent residency - is that it means that these people will get Australian citizenship with the worst possible preparation,'' Mr Abbott said. ''Five years on welfare, for life in Australia.''
Coalition sources said the details of the policy were still being set but, under options being considered, if an asylum seeker refused to abide by the obligations placed on them, they would lose the welfare payment and face other penalties, including being placed in detention.
Since the government announced the Pacific solution on August 13, about 7600 people have arrived by boat and all arrivals from that date are subject to the no-advantage clause.
Mr Abbott will promise that if elected, he will reintroduce temporary protection visas which will be given to every person who arrives by boat after the election.
But the thousands on Labor's bridging visas, which a Coalition government would ''inherit'', would be subject to the mutual obligation conditions until those visas expired.
Those put on temporary protection visas would face similar restrictions but may be able to work, as they were able to do so under the Howard government.
Mr Abbott has defended the decision to cut Australia's humanitarian intake if elected, denying it was a backflip.
In August the government agreed to immediately raise the intake from 13,750 to 20,000 per year, as part of the Houston Report's recommendations. The report also recommended an increase to 27,000 places a year within five years, if economic circumstances allowed it.
During negotiations with the crossbenchers in June, Mr Abbott also offered to increase the intake to 20,000 over three years, to try and to secure support for Coalition amendments.
"We put that on the table as a way of trying to break a parliamentary deadlock," he said on Channel Nine on Friday. "But we said when we failed to do that that it wasn't something that would stay on the table. The last message that we should be sending to people smugglers and their customers is that Australia is easier to get into."
Mr Abbott said that while the new measures were similar to the policy the Coalition took to the last election, he had not yet run them by the party room.
"It's gone through the leadership group [of senior Coalition members]," he said. "I'm confident that I'll have the overwhelming support of my colleagues."
Labor's latest policy change has caused consternation in the Left faction. One of its conveners, the NSW senator Doug Cameron, complained that the policy would create an underclass.
''If you have a situation where people are thrown into the community having to rely on charity then you are creating an underclass in this society,'' he said.
''I don't want people to come here and starve.''
Fairfax Media understands the Left faction convenors will hold a phone hook-up before Parliament resumes on Monday to discuss their displeasure both with the latest policy and the fact that it was not run past the caucus.
One Left source said that despite the unhappiness, the Labor Party had now lurched so far to the right in asylum seeker policy there would be no going back and there was little the faction could do other than complain among itself.
''The horse has bolted,'' he said.